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Schools' design fees seen as too high

The Medford School District has been under fire for what some view as exorbitant architect fees for the design of at least four Medford elementary school remodel projects.

The design fees of about 9.5 percent of the total construction cost for renovating Jackson, Lone Pine, Oak Grove and Roosevelt elementary schools are in line with the national median for remodeling classroom space, according to PSMJ Resources, a design firm information service in Newton, Mass.

But a local architect who was a candidate to design the Lone Pine project said the fees, charged by the Portland and Seattle firms, are higher than what the district could have secured in Southern Oregon.

"They went with fees I think were out of sight," said Douglas Snider, a Medford architect who built Medford's Abraham Lincoln Elementary School at McLoughlin Drive.

Snider who was screened and selected for a district architect pool had sought to build the new Lone Pine Elementary School based on the Abraham Lincoln template, but district officials gave the job to Portland-based Opsis Architecture instead.

District officials said they favored Opsis for its extensive experience in constructing schools, and its large staff.

"I feel our fees are in line," said Mark Button, Medford schools facilities director.

"They are not excessive."

The district plans to largely demolish Lone Pine and replace it, preserving and remodeling only the media center and two classroom wings.

Under its contract, Opsis may charge up to a total of $1.6 million for design fees, expenses such as travel, phone bills and document reproduction and supplemental services. The some $440,000 in supplemental services include cost estimating, civil engineering, landscape design, acoustic design, food service design and associate architect Ashland-based Architectural Design Works.

Opsis will receive reimbursement for travel, phone and document reproduction of up to $77,868.

Snider said his fees include all supplemental services.

"Our 7.75 percent fee for Abraham Lincoln included the acoustical engineer, interior designer, civil engineer ... hardware consultant as well as the structural, mechanical and electrical engineers," Snider said.

As a local architect, he said wouldn't have incurred any expenses from travel, lodging and meals for the Lone Pine project.

District officials never tried to negotiate with Snider for a fee, though they approved him for their architect pool based on his qualifications.

"I have no doubt the fees are higher than they need to be," Snider said. "If the district is comfortable paying that amount with taxpayer dollars I can't do anything about it."

District officials said Opsis was more qualified for the job, and under state law, school districts may not hire architects based on cost alone. Opsis has built more schools than Snider's firm.

Dave Burstein, director of consulting and training services at PSMJ Resources, said nationwide the median fee is 7 percent for new construction of classroom space and 9 percent for renovations.

Those percentages don't account for any supplemental services or travel expenses, he said.

There are no state figures on average architect fees to build a school in Oregon. The state Board of Architects doesn't track those data, and associations like the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects are forbidden from monitoring and publishing those figures because of federal anti-trust laws that seek to prevent price-fixing.

"When you get into remodeling, these rules of thumb (for determining cost) don't apply," Burstein said. "Remodeling is difficult because the existing condition of the building is not well documented. You have to do field documents. You run into all kind of unexpected conditions. Remodeling is always more and sometimes a lot more."

Architects typically charge more for renovation than new construction because they spend more time researching the existing buildings, some of which have had multiple renovations and additions.

For example, Lone Pine has been renovated and expanded 10 times since it was built in 1926.

Jackson and Roosevelt were constructed in 1911, and Oak Grove was built in 1891. Those three schools also have received multiple remodels and additions.

"We are looking at the worst-case scenario as far as the work involved in designing these remodels because the schools were built between (1891 and 1926) and have had multiple additions," Button said. "It makes the buildings more complex."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.